Symbolism in Literary Theory
When I read, I subscribe to a combination of Reader Response Theory and Authorial Intent. While the two might seem to conflict too heavily for anyone to believe firmly in the application of both, there is a happy medium—namely, reading a work with the author’s background and known themes in mind while also considering what those themes mean to you personally. What is most important about these two schools of thought is that both employ a close look at the symbolism tucked between the lines of a given work, and both speculate the depth of meaning that may or may not exist in any given symbol.
How to Use Symbolism in Your Own Writing
Symbolism works best if you structure it around your main themes. You want to add to those themes, essentially creating a puzzle for your readers to solve that, when pieced together, says something about your story on a deeper level. For example, in my dystopia World-Mart, there is a scene in which the main protagonist passes an airplane graveyard amidst the district dump. Given that the world as this protagonist knows it has phased out fossil fuel use due to severe climate changes, the grounded, rotting airplanes are a symbol of the nonrenewable and environmentally unfriendly energy supply we currently take for granted. The symbol expounds the themes of excess/waste and global warming.
Embedding symbolism in your own work takes careful planning. While some meaningful symbols will inevitably present themselves spontaneously as you write, having a list of symbols and what they mean in the context of your work is crucial. If you work by outline, it is helpful to include placement ideas for your symbolism right alongside your plot. If you prefer to write without an outline, make sure you have a list somewhere visible in your work area to remind you of the symbols you want to include.
Some things to consider:
- Do you have a firm idea of the themes you would like to include in your story?
- How do your symbols help to develop those themes?
- How identifiable and universally meaningful are the symbols you would like to use?
- If your symbols are more obscure, what subtle hints can you include in your plot or character dialog that might clarify them?
Finding a balance between entertainment and depth in a story requires extra work on your part as the writer, but when done well, symbolism used alongside your themes will enrich your work and offer your readers something to ponder beyond your storyline. It is a way to make a statement without being blatant about it, and it is an excellent tool to use in conjunction with other literary devices such as irony and foreshadowing. Have fun with it; your readers will appreciate the effort.
Leigh M. Lane is a speculative fiction author whose works span from sci-fi to horror. Her most recent full-length works are The Hidden Valley Horror, Finding Poe, World-Mart, and Myths of Gods. For more about her work, go to her website at http://www.cerebralwriter.com.